Green spaces, parks, urban walks – all of these are important parts of a healthy, happy life in our big cities. But behind France’s beautiful public gardens and forests lies an uncomfortable reality: the use of pesticides, nearly all of which are extremely harmful. Despite recent French legislation aimed at reducing the use of pesticides, finding a balance between urban greenery and public health still proves complicated. Pascal Goubier, Assistant Manager of Lyon’s Public Parks and Gardens and Hortis expert, explains why.
Pesticide-free green spaces: key challenges and problems
Despite the best efforts of lobby groups and pharmaceutical companies, research has conclusively proven that pesticides are extremely harmful on human health. However, ensuring that all public green spaces are 100% pesticide-free remains a challenge for urban authorities, particularly in the case of certain areas, such as cemeteries and roadsides.
1/ Technical issues
When looking to bring public health and landscape gardening together, one of the first major difficulties is overcoming any technical problems, including limited resources. Pascal Goubier says: “Keeping green spaces under control using all-natural methods requires a certain level of expertise. Most professional gardeners and landscapers have the necessary skills, but the majority of local authority or government employees lack this kind of technical know-how. As a result, training on how to recognize and use pesticide alternatives is essential.”
2/ The ‘urban mindset’
Most urban dwellers are used to seeing and enjoying carefully maintained green spaces – no sooner does a rogue weed or flower appear than they’re ‘disposed of’. If we’re looking to move towards pesticide-free towns and cities, this all-too-common attitude has to change.
3/ Lack of political engagement
Of course, certain key urban areas need to be maintained to avoid grass growing underfoot. However, that’s not the case everywhere. It’s possible to consider giving Mother Nature a little more room in our towns and cities, but this would require serious political engagement.
4/ Lack of awareness
Reminding us that the health consequences of pesticides and artificial chemicals aren’t always immediately visible, Pascal Goubier says: “Pesticides can take years to start showing their negative effects, while community agents and government workers will suffer faster from backache problems, for example.”
5/ Lack of ‘pesticide-free’ urban planning
The last few decades have seen a huge rise in the construction of green spaces intended for pesticide-based management. Pascal Goubier says: “As a response to this pesticide-focused urban design, it’s essential that landscapers and urban planners plan and provide for urban spaces that don’t require pesticides when it comes to maintenance and upkeep.”
Landscaping and urban planning: key legal constraints
Despite new French legislation aiming at reducing the use of pesticides, only one French city in ten is now pesticide-free when it comes to maintaining sports fields and cemeteries (1). In other words, there’s still a long way to go.
Landscape planning and cemeteries
The maintenance and upkeep of public cemeteries is already a delicate task, as any perceived ‘overgrowth’ or unkempt greenery could be misinterpreted as a sign of wilful neglect. Local communities are often reluctant to approach the subject for fear of upsetting residents. However, a study published by France’s Plante & Cité association indicates that it’s possible to maintain a respectful visiting space while allowing for natural growth (3).
Landscape gardening and sports terrain
Diehard sports fans balk at the idea of playing soccer on a bed of all-natural grass, complete with clovers and dandelions. For Pascal Goubier, we could be seeing the beginning of a shift towards artificial terrain: “Technically speaking, sports fields are difficult to maintain. Users tend to prefer a ‘uniform’ surface free from natural inclines and dips. As a result, it’s possible that we’ll soon be moving towards synthetic fields and football pitches.”
It’s important to remember that sale of pesticides to private individuals will soon be illegal in France in 2019. The public won’t have a choice when it comes to their public sports facilities, but it’s important to start changing attitudes as early as possible.
Landscape gardening and public health: how green spaces can help urban populations
There’s no question that our environment can severely impact our health. It seems logical, then, to include public health services in the conversation about maintenance of our public green spaces.
Bringing urban planning and public health together heralds a new way of looking at life in our cities. “Until recently, greenery and public parks were seen as a government expense.” says Pascal Goubier. “But today, we know that trees provide much-needed oxygen, fight against pollution, reduce stress, and offer numerous health benefits to urban populations. It’s crucial that urban authorities consult with health experts to fully examine the positive impact green spaces can have on our health.”
Adopting a global approach to urban planning, one that takes into account the realities of today as well as the desired outcomes of tomorrow, is the challenge facing our politicians, urban planners and landscaping professionals – all of whom have a role to play in the fight against pollution and improving urban biodiversity via sustainable, durable development.
Our thanks to Pascal Goubier for his expertise.
(2) Écophyto pro, Le point sur la Loi Labbé
(3) Plante & Cité, Réhabilitation écologique et paysagère des cimetières : Un recueil à destination des élus et gestionnaires
Photo credit: Pexels / Adrianna Calvo